How Social Media is Polarizing Us

I’ve been thoroughly dismayed by Facebook the past couple of years. Maybe it’s a quirk of memory, but I don’t remember my feed being so full of political sparring and overwhelming anger between 2009 to 2012. Outrage has become the default position of my peers, and it doesn’t show any sign of diminishing.


As anyone who has ever engaged in a spirited debate knows, a mind can’t be changed from without – it has to change from within. While appealing to sentiment is more effective than using cool rationality, our beliefs are like muscles – they only get stronger when stressed and challenged. In addition, as Charlie Munger, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, has said: “[when] you start shouting orthodox ideology out, what you’re doing is pounding it in, pounding it in, and you’re gradually ruining your mind.”

This is a devilish feature of human nature, and means that beliefs are almost invincible – the more they’re repeated, the more they’re believed, and the more they’re challenged, the more they’re believed. Thus, the only way to weaken a belief is to let it be – to leave it alone. The longer it’s disregarded the weaker it gets. Any attention, positive or negative, acts as fuel for the fire.

This is why social media, like Facebook, is so powerful. Chances are one of our hundreds (or thousands) of friends or acquaintances is going to be thinking and talking about one of our deep seated beliefs at any given time of day; especially if these beliefs are political in nature and related to a salient event. In the past, we weren’t likely to be constantly confronted with such topics unless we always had the news on in the background. And, even then, phones command our attention much more actively than TVs ever did.

Today, however, not only are we continuously confronted with political and societal outrages, but the personal nature of Facebook means that our emotional responses are on steroids. If we agree with the statement, article or video posted, we don’t just like the video, we like our friend as well. And, by “liking” or commenting on the shared snippet, we reaffirm our belief and our friendship. On the other hand, if we thoroughly disagree with the message posted, and decide to jump into the comment thread to “set our friend straight”, we’re only reaffirming our own belief and prompting our friend to reaffirm theirs. It’s a race to the bottom, and a game where both sides get stronger – making mutually assured destruction the only available outcome.

This is how polarization occurs. In a certain sense, there’s no way around this. The only way out is to opt out by disabling one’s account. Dozens of my friends have gone this way and claim that they feel “much better” and “calmer” since the change. Me? I’m addicted. And I love getting embroiled in long threads of argumentation. Though it’s likely not good for my blood pressure at times, I’m able to laugh off the conflicts and move on. But even through the laughs, I’m probably pounding my beliefs in even deeper. There’s a danger in engaging. Attention is hunger for all beliefs – big, small, petty, and dangerous.

The world and workforce need wisdom. Why don’t universities teach it?

Universities claim to prepare students for the world. How many actually do it?

Photo: Take A Pix Media / Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Many university mission statements do not live up to their promise, writes Ben Nelson, founder of Minerva, a university designed to develop intellect over content memorization.
  • The core competencies that students need for success—critical thinking, communication, problem solving, and cross-cultural understanding, for example—should be intentionally taught, not left to chance.
  • These competencies can be summed up with one word: wisdom. True wisdom is the ability to apply one's knowledge appropriately when faced with novel situations.
Keep reading Show less

What the world will look like in the year 250,002,018

This is what the world will look like, 250 million years from now

On Pangaea Proxima, Lagos will be north of New York, and Cape Town close to Mexico City
Surprising Science

To us humans, the shape and location of oceans and continents seems fixed. But that's only because our lives are so short.

Keep reading Show less

Six-month-olds recognize (and like) when they’re being imitated

A new study may help us better understand how children build social cognition through caregiver interaction.

Personal Growth
  • Scientists speculate imitation helps develop social cognition in babies.
  • A new study out of Lund University shows that six-month-olds look and smile more at imitating adults.
  • Researchers hope the data will spur future studies to discover what role caregiver imitation plays in social cognition development.
  • Keep reading Show less

    New study connects cardiovascular exercise with improved memory

    Researchers at UT Southwestern noted a 47 percent increase in blood flow to regions associated with memory.

    An elderly man runs during his morning exercises at the promenade on the Bund along the Huangpu Rive the Bund in Shanghai on May 18, 2017.

    Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images
    Surprising Science
    • Researchers at UT Southwestern observed a stark improvement in memory after cardiovascular exercise.
    • The year-long study included 30 seniors who all had some form of memory impairment.
    • The group of seniors that only stretched for a year did not fair as well in memory tests.
    Keep reading Show less
    Scroll down to load more…